On Meaning, Successfully

We’ve all come out of the last year changed in one way or another. Perhaps it’s a growing distaste for the general public or the government; perhaps it’s a newfound appreciation for solitude; perhaps it’s the realization that so much of our previous lives required unnecessary performativity in order to maintain our social and professional standing.

I’d like to pretend that we as a collective society leaned into grace and tolerance, kindness and caring, community and understanding, but that’s a farce about which I can’t even pretend to suspend my disbelief, and you should know by now that I’m prone to idealistic fantasizing, so this has been quite the letdown. Faith in humanity reduced. Quite significantly.

I quit my job three weeks before the pandemic started. I had to – the stress was slowly killing me. (I’ll save the juicy bits for my forthcoming post about the treatment of women in the healthcare system, something you likely already know about but need to hear more about.)

After leaving my job, I slept for a week, and decided to submit my graduate school application for a master’s in HR and started applying for jobs. Suddenly, the world ground to a “two-week” halt.

I have a wide range of skills, among them, legal work and nannying. I am nothing if not an excellent drafter of estate planning documents (I have a surprising ability to pay attention to detail, when necessary) and am a fantastic nurturer of young minds. I ended up throwing out my vision for the future (temporarily?), and embraced the new normal of slogging through an empty city (I will say, the lack of traffic during the initial shutdown was nothing short of amazing) to wrangle a resistant, frustrated child through the beginning (and eventual middle and hopeful end) of remote learning. At one point, I ran into my old boss at the grocery store, and she reached out to see if I could pick up some extra legal work since her assistant had to quit to take care of her own school-aged children.

It was an odd experience for me. While everyone else was cooped up at home learning how to bake sourdough bread and having Zoom happy hours, I was working four jobs, scrambling to make ends meet after the world of possibilities as I knew it had shuttered indefinitely. Babysitting, legal work, book editing, and decorating cakes. It became a mind-numbing time, not because I hated the work, but because it was always work and there was never quite enough time for anything. Everything felt dark and slow.

I know that as adult humans, we’ve all developed the capacity to entertain ourselves with a variety of distractions, both healthy and not, but for the children, it was a very disconcerting time. My now 11 year old had just switched schools, and the sudden shift to remote learning was difficult in an already difficult time. She was angry, upset, and scared, and those are all big emotions that are hard to name, and even harder to regulate.

The rules changed constantly, and even though adult me knows that change is the only constant, I still struggle with it, so I can only imagine what the constant state of uncertainty felt like for her. I’m used to being disappointed, but she has yet to learn that the world will never stop letting you down.

My experience with school was that everything just came to me. I know that’s not the normal experience for everyone. Her teacher was not the best remote learning teacher (and I’m not here to cast any sort of judgement, I can’t imagine what that massive switch was like for teachers) – she checked out. There were no lessons, just assignments. The curriculum was already new and different to my kiddo, so not having lessons left her untethered and free-floating, lost in an unfathomable abyss.

I tried to make it fun. I tried to show up for her. I tried to learn new math and teach her old math. I tried to make jokes. I tried to be realistic. I tried to be stern. It was horrible. Every day stretched on, the procrastination and the panic and the insecurity of not knowing built with each passing hour.

We took trampoline breaks. I had stopped going to the gym, obviously, and was grateful for the opportunity to develop what I called “trampoline legs.” She taught me how to do a front handspring – we practiced for hours, laughing at each horrible fall and celebrating the almosts – almost landed it, almost kept that handstand for 5 seconds, almost fell out of the mesh safety net.

We would lay on our backs on the trampoline, watching the clouds. I’ve long been a believer in staring at the sky to ground yourself. I also believe that the process of trying to discern shapes from an ever-shifting medium leads to a creative, flexible approach to thinking through scenarios. It’s a way to teach larger lessons without actually imparting them.

We took walks. We went on bike and scooter rides. (Turns out, I’ve still got it — I can still do little hops on a Razor scooter — which wildly impressed another of my former nanny kids.) Hilariously, we were going to get cupcakes one day, and I was on the scooter and everyone else was on bikes. Three teenage boys scooted past me on those Lime electric scooters and yelled, “Nice scooter, pussy!” at me. I was taken aback. I yelled back, “Why don’t you come say that to my face?” I fully intended to get them in front of me, have them realize I’m an adult, and then threaten to tell their parents and tell them to mind their manners, but they rode off into the afternoon, unabashed and full of adolescent hubris. We had a good laugh about that, and every time I find myself on a scooter, I think to myself, “Nice scooter, pussy!”

We had picnics. We built forts. We went to my house to sit in the hammock and break the monotony. We facetimed everyone we knew. We exhausted every game we had. We fought. I got so sick of dolls and dress up and started trying to get creative with the storylines – sometimes we were secret spies, sometimes we were business owners, sometimes we were graduate students.

In the middle of it all, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. My child found out about it from a neighbor. Breonna Taylor’s face filled social media. My child knew, and she was terrified. The unrest was growing. I did not protest, although I wanted to. I couldn’t – not with the fear of catching COVID, because I couldn’t afford to take two weeks off of work, and I felt that showing up for my child was more important in that moment. I watched it unfold. I watched her watch it unfold.

One day, we were driving and we passed an abandoned 7-11 with “Fuck the police” painted across the plywood. She said, “Katie, did you see that?” and I said that I hadn’t and asked her to elaborate. She told me, and I told her that those words were being spray-painted around the world because a lot of people were incredibly upset about what was happening.

We had one of those long car talks that day. I pulled up outside her house, and we sat in the car for half an hour. She’d just learned all the curse words, and in the middle of our conversation, she said, “Katie, can I say something?” and I said, of course, always. She said, “This is bullshit.” I looked at her, and I said, “No, this is fucking bullshit.” Her eyes got wide. I went off – my mom instincts and my rage came together in that moment. I looked her in the eyes and told her that I should not be having to have this conversation with a child. I told her that no child should live in fear of other people because of their skin color and that it’s not okay or acceptable. I told her that I will do everything in my power to protect her, to keep her safe, and to put my body in front of her or any child at any point in time. I told her that it was my job as a white person to show up and speak up, and promised her that I would never lie to her, and that I would always work to make her feel seen and safe. We talked about what it feels like to feel scared and afraid and different. We talked about everything. I tend to get intense when I’m in that frame of mind (or always), and after we took a breath, I checked in with her to see how she was feeling. She told me that she’d been feeling really scared, but that she felt a lot better after we talked. I promised her that I would always be there to listen to her and that I would always be there to stand up for her in the world.

Last summer, I was reminded about my purpose as a human. I’ve hated everything for so long, been dejected and disconnected, and generally free-floating into that mysterious abyss of uncertainty. Watching “my” child struggle to make sense of the insanity made me more determined than ever to show up every single day and to give her hope and consistency.

We survived the summer. We survived Mondays of remote learning. (I was doing more full-time legal work by that point, so I only had her one day a week once she started school.) She joined a book club at school and couldn’t wait to tell me all about it. Her eyes lit up. She was finally settling in and feeling secure, and seeing that change in her brought about a sense of relief I hadn’t known I’d needed.

On my birthday, her mom texted me to tell me that they’d run out of children’s pain relief and she’d had to take a pill, but she assured her mom that I’d already taught her how to take them. (I have no recollection of this, but it sounds like something I’d do – I always try to weave in the little things so that she’s ready for the world. Potato peeling lessons, knife skills, skincare, lady stuff, relationships, knowing your worth, etc. I casually drop mentions here and there in the hopes that someday, it’ll all come together in an innate sense of knowing how to be in the world.) Her mom thanked me for all of the lessons that I teach her, tangible and intangible. My heart swelled.

I was at the airport waiting to fly to Chicago recently, and she called me. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, and she was calling to tell me she missed me. While we were catching up, she told me about solving problems and how there’s always a way, but sometimes it just takes longer to see. That’s a hundred and twelve percent from me, and I know I’m bragging here, but I feel like the most accomplished woman in the world. Watching her find her way and find herself has brought so much meaning to my life, in a way that she’ll never understand. She’s been such a gift to me.

I’ve recently had several conversations about worth. Success is generally defined as the ability to amass capital, the climbing of the invisible ladder that tethers us to capitalism, the obtaining of expensive goods and the ability to utilize expensive services. I have never subscribed to this, although I would really like to breathe at some point. I have always found worth from experiences such as this past year, as arduous as it was at times.

I was talking to a friend recently – the conversation began with the ominous question, “Why do you hate capitalism?” – about this. I told him I’m not any less intelligent than he is, but I’ve always had a disdain for certain things and it’s prevented me from “succeeding” in some areas. I argued that my worth in this world is measured by the ripples I put out into it, and in that, helping to shape a child’s perception of the world is my greatest accomplishment. It’s not quantifiable, it’s intangible, and yet it’s still incredibly real. I matter to that child. She trusts me. She listens to me. She feels safe with me. We’ve grown together.

My intention for my life has always been to love madly. To love wildly and freely and openly. And while I have allowed the bits of jaded bitterness to swallow the edges of my soul at times, it is experiences like this that keep that bright light at my core burning. Life is best when shared with others. Life is best when you are connected and giving. Life is best when you’re aligned with that purpose, and seeing the fruits of your labor bloom in front of you is the most rewarding experience. That is success.

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About kb

free spirit, lover of red wine, bacon, sushi, the ocean, and adventure. I work in the legal field, do freelance writing, and take care of children.

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